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Writing Tip #8: It’s Okay If What You Write Stinks

Monday, June 14, 2010

One of the main reasons so many would-be writers never get further than being would-be writers—people with bits and pieces of started, but never finished, manuscripts hidden in drawers or secret files on the computer—is because they’ve let something that all of us who write know paralyze them and keep them from moving forward with their writing. Which brings us to today’s writing tip.

Writing Tip #8. Write for you first. Edit for others later.
As Stephen King wrote in On Writing, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

Saturday, on his Advanced Fiction Writing Blog, author and marketing guru Randy Ingermanson put it this way:

Nobody is ever going to see your first draft except a very few people who already love you, warts, backstory, and all. Those are your critique buddies. Frankly, they already know your first draft sucks, so it’s OK. . . . It’ll give them something to feel good about when they point it out to you.

Let me put it another way . . .

Do you think Yo-Yo Ma sounded like this or like this the first time he picked up the cello?

How many times do you think Evan Lysacek had to do this before he could do this?

In short: it’s okay if what you write stinks—because you can always fix it later.

When you’re in the creative process, you don’t need to be bogging yourself down with worrying about whether or not what you’re writing is “good.” You just need to write. You need to get the first draft finished. You need to turn off the analytical/self-doubting/self-criticizing side of the brain.

I love my computers. Y’all know that. I couldn’t live without them. But writing at the computer does something weird to me—by seeing the words coming out as printed prose—i.e., the way they might actually look in hard copy/printed in a book—I feel like I have to “get it right” before I type it into the computer . . . like what I’m writing has to be the correct words, without telling or loose POV or embellished dialogue tags or adverbs or whatever “rule” my brain is pecking at me with at that moment.

So when I’m really struggling with those negative thoughts and writer’s block that comes from the worries and fears that what I’m writing isn’t good enough, I pull out my trusty spiral notebook.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg gives the reason why writing longhand can help with writer’s block and overcoming those nasty “it has to be perfect as soon as you commit it to text” voices:

In my notebooks, I don’t bother with the side margins or the one at the top: I fill the whole page. I am not writing anymore for a teacher or for school. I am writing for myself first and I don’t have to stay within my limits, not even margins. This gives me a psychological freedom and permission. And when my writing is on and I’m really cooking, I usually forget about punctuation, spelling, etc. I also notice that my handwriting changes. It becomes larger and looser. . . .

One of the main aims in writing is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and nonaggressive.

If we’re constantly questioning the quality and craft-level of what we’re writing, are we really trusting our own mind? Our talent? The story we’ve been given?

Remember the parable of the talents—the master went away but gave his servants a certain sum of money (“talents”). Two of them went out and put what he’d entrusted them to good use and multiplied the talents; the third was afraid he might fail if he tried to do something with his talents, so he kept them hidden, to himself. And what did the master say to the two who put theirs to good use? “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

But what did he say to the one who gave in to fear of failure? “You wicked, lazy servant! . . . Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

If you let the fear of failure—the fear that your writing stinks—rule you and keep you from writing the stories you’ve been given, you’re no better than that “wicked, lazy servant.”

Sure, it’s easy to stand in awe of published authors—those who’ve gone out there and taken the risk of putting their writing in front of others and faced rejection and won. But, you’re thinking, they’re great writers, they’re great storytellers. I’ll never be like that.

Let me refer you back to the video examples I linked to above. No talent comes out of the gate fully formed (well, okay, yes, Yo-Yo Ma was a child prodigy who, at seven years old, played for President Kennedy) without the need for lots of practice, lots of studying, and lots of defeating self-doubt and fear that what we’re doing (writing, music, sports, art, cooking, etc.) isn’t good enough.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had so many conversations or read e-mails from multi-published authors of whose talents I stand in awe who say they are sure that with every manuscript they turn in, it’s the worst one they’ve ever written and will be the one that ends their career. So, you see, those fears and doubts never go away.

So allow yourself to write stinky prose. Allow yourself to write info dumps. Allow yourself to use clichés and ignore punctuation and write scenes of dialogue with only he-said/she-said attributions. Allow yourself to draw _______________ blank lines in places where you need to research something or you can’t think of the right word. Write longhand and scribble things out and ignore the margins.

It can all be fixed later.

People usually write novels in several drafts, and writers agree that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Many writers will tell you frankly that their first drafts are a crime against the humanities. But they write a first draft anyway, because you can’t write a second draft until you’ve done a first. So your first task as a writer is to give yourself permission to write a first draft that stinks. . . .

You always write your first draft in creative mode. When we talk about a first draft, we mean the first version you write on the page or type on the screen. Everything after that is edited copy. If you’re doing your job right, some of your first draft will be excellent, and some will be awful. Your goal is to make sure that all of your final draft is excellent, and the only way to get there is to start with a first draft, no matter how bad.

Give yourself permission to be bad on the first draft. After all, your editor isn’t going to see that first draft. Just get it written. Later on, when you go into editing mode, you can worry about making it pretty. After you finish editing, everyone will think that you were brilliant all along. Only you’ll know the truth, and you don’t have to tell anyone.
~From Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

  1. Monday, June 14, 2010 3:02 am

    Great post, Kaye. I’ve really enjoyed this series of writing tips 🙂 For about a year, I wondered why I couldn’t finish my first novel (the first draft, anyway) and what I was doing wrong. I read somewhere to allow your first drafts to stink to the high heavens, because you can always fix them later. That was probably the best writing advice I’ve ever received, because it allowed me to keep writing, finish that book, and move on to my second. Not sure why I thought all of the ‘real (published, award-winning)’ writers created perfect first drafts, but it seemed that way to me, at first :/


    • Monday, June 14, 2010 8:26 am

      I think it’s really easy to look at someone who’s successful at something and automatically assume, because they make it look easy, that it is easy—for them, but not for us because we weren’t given that kind of precocious/extraordinary talent.

      It’s like the saying goes, success is 10% talent and 90% hard work.


  2. Monday, June 14, 2010 5:38 am

    Oh Kaye, this was soooo good! I very much needed to hear this today. I’ve always heard to write with your heart and rewrite with your head, but it is still so stinkin’ hard to do. I love your idea of writing longhand when the going gets tough. I’m definitely going to try that next go around!


    • Monday, June 14, 2010 8:29 am

      Sometimes, it’s not even writing with the heart, but with the last ounce of nerve and compulsion you have just to get something, anything, down on paper.

      Dictating to the laptop in the car has somewhat taken the place of writing longhand for me these days. It’s using that creativity differently (after all, I have to speak all of the punctuation in addition to the words, whereas when writing or typing, I don’t even have to think about those things), but it still helps me unlock the story/inspiration in the way that writing longhand does.


  3. Monday, June 14, 2010 7:47 am

    I write so much more fluently when writing in a notebook than typing. After reading the segment above about it being ‘perfect’ when committed to the type…makes such complete sense. Many times I actually type out verbatim what I’ve written, but for some reason it just flows easier for me longhand.

    Go figure. 🙂

    p.s. I’m up to the point where Julia is spending her first night aboard ship. 🙂


    • Monday, June 14, 2010 8:31 am

      I find I edit/revise as I type in what I’ve written longhand. And as I just mentioned in the reply to Sherrinda’s comment, dictating into the laptop while traveling helps, too, because I know there’s going to be a considerable amount of editing/correcting I’m going to have to do when I can once again actually sit down with fingers to keyboard, so it allows me to begin speaking a new sentence in the middle of one I started that I didn’t like or to ask brainstorming questions or make notes for future scenes in the middle of what I’m dictating.


  4. Monday, June 14, 2010 7:55 am

    I needed to read this today. I am a perfectionist and I struggle so as I’m writing the rough draft. Writing longhand is a great idea. May go get a notebook to do just that.


    • Monday, June 14, 2010 8:31 am

      I always see the beginning of a new novel as the perfect excuse to go out and buy a new notebook—even if the one I’ve been using isn’t full yet.


  5. Kav permalink
    Monday, June 14, 2010 8:04 am

    You know, I often write longhand first. Mostly because I’m commuting somewhere and try to use every available second for my writing. Hence, writing longhand on the bus to work or in the clinic waiting for the doctor or at lunch or…Well anyway it gets down but it’s absolutely DREADFUL and I cringe when I go to type it up. But then I fill in the gaps and the keyboarding part goes much faster and the whole scene sounds so much better…but still doesn’t seem good enough for me. Sigh. I really needed to ‘hear’ this today. 🙂


    • Monday, June 14, 2010 8:33 am

      I find that people who don’t regularly practice writing longhand start losing the ability to be able to write anywhere—if they aren’t at the computer typing it in, they just can’t write. Whereas no matter where I am, if inspiration strikes, whether it’s a line of dialogue a paragraph or an entire scene, if there’s something to write on and with, I’m off and running.


  6. Monday, June 14, 2010 8:05 am

    GREAT post!


  7. Monday, June 14, 2010 8:45 am

    I’ll join the crowd in saying I really needed to hear this today. Since I’m in front of a computer most of the day, I can get some snippets written that way, but honestly, when I just pull out a legal pad and start writing, it DOES flow better. Being able to READ it, on the other hand, is a problem sometimes! LOL The frustrating thing is that I don’t WRITE as fast as I can TYPE, so I find myself trying to write, longhand, as fast as I think!

    But, I’m going to use this as a challenge to myself on book 2 to write longhand FIRST.

    Watching the mailbox avidly…


    • Monday, June 14, 2010 8:52 am

      When I get to the point at which I can’t keep up longhand with what I’m wanting to get down, that’s when I’ll switch over to the computer because, like you, I can type a whole heckuva lot faster than I can write—especially when I’m in the zone…between 100 to 120 wpm!


  8. Monday, June 14, 2010 8:53 am

    Kaye, thank you for this series of writing tips. I would rank this one high on the list. At times I’ve exchanged the computer for a comfy chair and spiral notebook but didn’t really know why till now. And boy, do those pages flip when I’m in that chair with my ink pen. Thanks for your insight. I love your generosity to share your writing knowledge with us in your blog posts. …Jo


    • Monday, June 14, 2010 3:47 pm

      As I came up with this list of ten items, the only one that definitely has the place of highest importance, as far as I’m concerned, was #1 (above all else, finish your first draft). The rest of these fell where they did mainly because it’s the order in which I thought of them. Every time I post one, I think it should have been “higher” on the list because it’s so important!


  9. Sylvia M. permalink
    Monday, June 14, 2010 9:07 am

    I think the writing out long-hand rather than typing first can work for alot of different things. Personally, I prefer writing a letter or note with a pen than typing it out in a word processor or an e-mail. I am definitely one that likes to stay withing the margins when I’m writing something. Even if it’s a blank piece of paper I still like to keep a mental margin around the edges. My mother, on the other hand, fills up the whole sheet of paper and even writes up the side to finish a sentence or two of a paragraph.


    • Monday, June 14, 2010 3:48 pm

      I’m I’m writing on an unlined piece of paper (like stationery), I’ll lay it atop a notebook page with lines dark enough I can see them through the stationery to make sure my lines of writing stay straight. I’m horrible at letting my lines start drifting diagonally downward.


  10. Monday, June 14, 2010 3:44 pm

    Watching the mailbox paid off….my copy of RANSOME’S CROSSING came today!!!!! Whoo-hoooo!


    • Monday, June 14, 2010 3:45 pm

      LOL—not a full minute ago, Jolanthe tweeted that she just finished reading it.


  11. Monday, June 14, 2010 5:08 pm

    Ooooo, my mailman just brought me MY copy of Ransome’s Crossing!!!!!!!!!! Woohooo! I’m so excited!


  12. Patty Smith Hall permalink
    Monday, June 14, 2010 8:34 pm

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me I must be crazy to write my first draft longhand, but I’m like you–something about that computer makes the internal editor switch in me turn ON! Writing longhand frees me to mess up, misspell, and go with the flow.

    So I have boxes of notebooks, some filled while others wait their turn.

    And thanks, Kaye–I received a copy of Ransome’s Crossing from Harvest House today!

    Patty Smith Hall



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